How Mindfulness Impacts Sleep Quality
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Mindful meditation is far from a modern wellness trend of Western culture.
In fact, meditation has been practiced for thousands of years in Eastern religions, namely Buddhism and Hinduism. It’s only been a few decades since the practice of “Modern Meditation” has caught on in the Western world.
What is Meditation?
At its core, meditation is a technique used to achieve clarity by focusing on the present moment through breathing exercises. The goal is to avoid drifting into thoughts or concerns about the past or future.
Another benefit of meditation most people don’t consider is improved sleep.
Why Sleep Quality Matters
Millions of Americans fall victim to troubled sleep, and they are paying the price.
Lack of sleep has been linked to a variety of long-term health ailments including an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Not to mention, we all suffer the short-term consequences of too little shut-eye. These include lack of energy, focus and productivity.
The good news is, rather than turning to artificial sleeping aids, meditation has proven to be a natural technique used to improve disturbed sleep.
3 Ways Meditation Improves Sleep Quality
Mindful meditation fights insomnia by promoting a relaxation response, which counteracts the detrimental effects of lack of sleep to our body’s fight or flight response.
The term ‘relaxation response’ was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of Harvard’s Mind and Body Medical Institute. The relaxation response is defined by a person’s ability to release chemicals and brain signals that slow activity in the body and increase blood flow to the brain. This bodily response has been proven to relieve a number of stress-related ailments, including depression and anxiety.
Mediation is the practice of the relaxation response and regularly practicing meditation will create a reflex in you that brings a sense of relaxation more easily over time.
Even 20 minutes of daily meditation has been proven to reduce psychological stress, anxiety fatigue and blood pressure.
Stress is a common culprit of robbing us of the sleep we need. At night, levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) should naturally decrease. However, chronic stress keeps cortisol levels elevated which keeps our bodies in a state of “fight or flight.”
Here’s why sleep and the stress response can’t coexist:
When our body is in a state of fight or flight, alertness is increased and adrenaline is released, exactly what you don’t want to happen near bedtime. Stress physically keeps your body from entering a state of relaxation. Whereas, practicing meditation helps train your body to combat stressors by eliciting the relaxation response.
2.Strengthens different regions of the brain
What’s even more interesting is recent neuroimaging studies show meditation can even have an impact on neural structure and functioning.
In a clinical trial conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association, participants who practiced meditation for an eight-week period had a higher concentration of gray matter tissue in certain regions of the brain, including the pons region, after the trial ended.
Gray matter: a darker tissue of the brain that contains nerve cell bodies
Pons region: the Pons region of the brain is part of the brainstem that plays a key role in sleep and dreaming. REM sleep, the deepest part of sleep where dreaming is most likely to occur, has been proven to originate in this region.
This means meditation strengthens the area of the brain responsible for REM sleep.
3.Increased levels of Melatonin
Melatonin is the hormone responsible for making us sleepy. Research shows practicing meditation can significantly increase levels of melatonin:
In one study, researchers found significantly higher levels of melatonin in the participants who regularly practiced meditation compared to those who didn’t. Another study found individuals who meditated before bed had increased levels of melatonin that same night. Melatonin levels of those who did not mediate stayed the same.
3 Meditation Techniques You Can Practice At Home
If you regularly battle stress and anxiety, or maybe you suffer from lack of sleep, here are three meditation techniques you can try to elicit the relaxation response:
Good for calming anxious thoughts and reducing stress.
This meditation technique focuses on regulating breathing which lowers heart rate and blood pressure by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. When our exhales are longer than our inhales, our body triggers its "rest & digest" relaxation mode rather than its "fight or flight" stress mode.
What to do:
- First, lay on your back and close your eyes. Take a deep breath in for a count of four, and then exhale for a count of eight.
- As you inhale, focus on your breath. Feel your belly expand as it fills with oxygen. As you exhale, imagine any stress and tension you carry in your body being released with each breath you that escapes you.
- Repeat five times.
2.Mindful Breathing Meditation
Good for increasing focus, attention and clarity.
This next exercise forces you to turn your awareness inward and challenges you to stay focused on the present and letting go of the past and future.
What to do:
- Sit or lay comfortably with a long, straight spine and find your breath.
- Begin counting your inhales and exhales from one to ten (inhale one, exhale one; inhale two, exhale two; etc.). When you reach ten, start again but count backward to one.
- Repeat this cycle five times.
When you've completed the cycle five times, continue to breathe at the steady pace you’ve set for two-to-three minutes. Once again, visualize your breath’s journey through the body. If your mind begins to wander, bring your attention back to your breath.
3.Body Scan Meditation
Good for building awareness of the body and easing tension after a long day.
The final mediation technique brings your awareness to your physical senses. This exercise allows you to identify where you are holding tension and consciously release it.
What to do:
- Lay on your back with your spine in neutral alignment. Settle into the ground by taking a few moments to find a steady breath.
- You will now bring your awareness to each region of the body by focusing on the sensations of each region one at a time.
- Begin by checking in on the left toes. Spend a few breaths here. Continue with the left foot, left ankle, calf, knee, thigh, etc - all the way through the left hip and so on.
- When you notice an area of tension or discomfort, breathe into it, relaxing on the out-breath.
- Repeat through the right side. Follow with the pelvic region, abdomen and lower back, moving up through the heart region. From there, follow and breathe through the sensations in the fingers, hands, wrists, up the arms, through the shoulders, neck, jaw, temples, ears, eyes, forehead, the crown of the head and skull.
Always remember to make sure your bedroom is a space that promotes rest and relaxation before you begin meditating. Dim the lights, stash the screens, turn on the essential oil diffuser and make sure you’re lying on a mattress that provides the right support for your exercise. If not, move to the floor. Then, cozy up and let the meditation begin.
If meditating on your own doesn’t elicit the relaxation you are hoping to achieve, go on a rejuvenating beginners meditation retreat to learn more techniques!